Tonight’s performance stood as one of the most anticipated performances of the season, so when Maria João Pires cancelled for Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 17 in G major, it was a considerable disappointment. As is often the case with last minute replacements, the audience was offered the chance to witness a newcomer to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Tonight Martin Helmchen joined forces with the RCO under the leadership of veteran conductor Herbert Blomstedt. The German braved Amsterdam on extremely short notice for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor. The energetic performance included excellent orchestral accompaniment from the RCO leaders, in particular the leaders of the woodwind sections. Blomstedt followed with a decent, quite solemn, rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6 in B minor “Pathétique”. In the end, the musicians delivered an invigorating mid-winter concert with this well-balanced programme.

Martin Helmchen © Marco Borggreve
Martin Helmchen
© Marco Borggreve

Currently continuing his studies with Alfred Brendel, Helmchen has already performed in London, Berlin and Vienna. His interaction with the orchestra produced a youthful energy, often eliciting a majestic mood from Mozart’s score. In the first movement, Helmchen played with intense focus and joy. After the RCO opened, the soloist took over and excelled in the exuberantly chromatic passages. Blomstedt supported with a steady but lively pace. The RCO strings delighted during the regal passages. In the cadenzas, the theatrical Helmchen revealed his intense focus in his facial expressions that were uninhibitedly disclosing his emotions.

In the Larghetto second movement and also in the finale, Helmchen had some fine interplay with the RCO. In his dialogue between soloist and woodwind section, the composer’s playfully bantering moods were excellently realised. Gustavo Núñez generously provided energetic and warm moments on his bassoon, while Olivier Patey contrasted effectively on the clarinet. At times the pianist’s youthful enthusiasm bordered a bit on exalted posturing, but who can blame him with Mozart? Even in what sometimes seemed a rushed speed, the young German produced good quality, clearly having a great time. One can imagine that had there been more rehearsal time, the collaboration would have been top-notch.

After the intermission, Blomstedt returned for a moving and mostly solemn performance of Tchaikovsky’s final symphony. The slowly falling scales opening the Allegro in B minor transported the audience in the Great Hall into Tchaikovsky's passionate and romantic universe. Blomstedt sustained the tension moving through the different keys and ending in the movement in B major Allegro non troppo. With seemingly boundless energy, the Swedish octogenarian moved the orchestra through the tempestuous passages, while also making sure the subtle pulse of the double basses was heard, adding a gentler dimension underneath the stormy Romance. Núñez lead the excellent bassoons, creating with their fragile phrases a gaunt, haunting atmosphere contributing to the pervading funereal mood. Brimming with force, the double basses presented a highlight at the end of the first movement as they continued Tchaikovsky’s pattern of falling scales in the coda with pizzicato rhythms.

The Allegro con grazia involved a graceful dance as the timpani, with subtle beats, foreshadowed the oncoming sadness of the final movement. The moderately paced movement provided the calm before the storm of the premature finale in the third movement. In the Allegro molto vivace the orchestra furiously performed the lead-up to the explosive end of the third movement. Blomstedt conducted with clarity highlighting the different timbres in the falling scales. The brass exploded, the timpani thundered, producing an exciting tension together.

In final movement, the RCO offered a poignant Adagio. Blomstedt allowed Kersten McCall to shine in his passages on the flute, at times unnerving, but never without warmth. Under the Maestro’s leadership the strings gloriously produced a deeply moving cascade of falling scales, eventually flowing out in the dying pulse of the careful basses. The audience embraced Blomstedt’s touching relay of Tchaikovsky with a standing ovation.